There are a lot of things I do very poorly. For example, I have the manual dexterity of a cow. A chimpanzee is better than me at using tools and fixing things. And anymore, a turtle moves faster than I do. (Okay, enough of the animal analogies.)
There is, however, one thing I do so inadequately as a human, even as a leader, that it’s embarrassing to mention.
I don’t grieve well.
Oh, I have plenty of emotional responses to loss and hardship, but I tend to get stuck in denial or depression. In other words, I don’t do well at moving through the stages of grief.
Someone once identified the five stages of grief as:
Anger doesn’t affect me like it did when I was a younger man. It takes too much energy to get and stay mad.
Bargaining takes a lot out of me as well.
Whatever the reason, and I’m sure somebody is psychoanalyzing me right now, I flip flop between denial or depression. It’s difficult for me to move into acceptance and peace after loss.
So, you ask, what are you grieving?
I’m grieving the loss of so many friends and parishioners since the Covid collapse.
I wrote about my leadership failures here, and I do take responsibility for letting too many people down. So, again, if that’s you, please forgive me.
But throughout the last almost eighteen months or so, I’ve watched a lot of people leave. Some unsubscribed from my blog, some left the church I pastor, and some did both. Then some are MIA, and I have no idea if I’ll ever see them again.
My reaction so far?
Oh, they’ll be back. It’s okay. All is well. (Also known as denial.)
I’ve failed them. Maybe they’ve failed me. Either way, I’ve been abandoned. I should sell cars for a living. (Also known as discouragement.)
I haven’t known how to process my sense of failure, my frustration with things out of my control, or the occasional fickleness of Christians.
And trust me, when you’re a control-freak perfectionist who hates to let people down, and you have lost people and friends, that’s an ugly recipe for despair.
Here are some of the things I’ve discovered about me and grief:
- Grief isn’t very clean. It’s messy.
- Grief is not linear. It keeps circling back at the worst possible moments.
- Grief doesn’t follow any neatly defined rules. Timelines, schedules, and my plans don’t seem to matter.
- Grief creates a desire in me to isolate myself. I feel empty when grief hits, and so I want to withdraw.
A friend, who counsels people for a living, once told me everyone grieves differently, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to process grief. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear because I like formulas and systems.
He also told me that though grief is very personal, for anyone to heal, they must go through it choosing to lean on someone they trust who is stronger than them.
But when I’m hurting, I hide.
When I’m suffering, I want to be left alone.
When I’m grieving, I will do anything to distract myself rather than face my pain.
Busyness isn’t a problem when I feel empty on the inside; it’s how I avoid my feelings.
But here is what I am learning: I need to lean into my grief by choosing to lean into the One who is trustworthy and always stronger than me.
I know, that is such a religious-sounding Christian thing to say—just lean into Jesus! It is, however, far easier to say than it is to do.
Too many of us lean into our favorite distractions (i.e., work, TV, video games) or our standard numbing coping mechanisms (i.e., drugs, booze, sex).
Too many of us get stuck in denial, anger, bargaining, or depression and never quite get to acceptance because we think no one—including God—understands us or is worthy of our trust.
Too many of us talk a lot about “trusting Jesus!” But trust requires surrender of our supposed right to choose our path and acceptance of the fact that we don’t control everyone or everything the way we want to.
Trust means I must simultaneously embrace my pain while I let go of my demand for answers.
See what I mean? Easy to talk about; hard to practice.
My seven-year-old granddaughter, Abby, was sitting next to me early one morning. She and I are often the first ones up, and I treasure our times together. She noticed one of my tattoos on the inside of my right arm. On it is the reference Psalm 31.
She asked as she rubbed her finger on the letters and the number thirty-one, “What’s that there for, Grandpa?”
I smiled and said, “Psalm 31 was a prayer of King David when he was in pain and hurting.”
“Huh,” she said, “What happened to him?”
I fought back the tears as I whispered, “David was hurting because some people didn’t like him, but he surrendered his life to the Lord and put his trust in God.”
I thought to myself, Hmmm…are you listening to your words, Grandpa?
That encounter with her turned out to be one of those God-moments you treasure.
You see, loss, grief, pain, and the thousand questions that often accompany those realities, suck. But when I take my anguish to Jesus, that’s when the final stage comes, and I start to accept what’s happened.
I accept that God knows the pain of loss; He gets me.
I accept that things on this side of eternity won’t always make sense.
I accept that humans (me included) hurt one another far too often.
I accept that He is God, and I am not.
And then, like David, I can say with peace, “Be strong and take heart all you who hope in the Lord” Psalm 31:24 (NIV).
Thanks, Abby, for pointing out something literally marked on my body (and now my soul). It was precisely what this old man needed to be reminded of, again.